Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Budgeting for the Common Good

On the Catholic Moral Theology blog, Thomas Bushlack (St. Thomas) made a useful post about the debt ceiling debates. It was useful both for what Thomas wrote and the comments that he provoked. He argues that there is a need (a great need) to bring the common good back into political discourse, particularly in the context of debating the federal budget.

Here's a particularly good passage from Bushlack's post:

What would bringing the language of the common good back into the discussion accomplish?  For one thing, it would re-establish the principle that government has a necessary role to play in seeking the common good (not the only role, but still a necessary one).  It would also allow us to recognize that in times of economic hardship sometimes government spending is the last resort to help spur the economy.  This principle, established by John Maynard Keynes and until very recently accepted by those on the right and the left, would remind us that the time to cut programs and spending is not during an economic downturn, but rather once the economy has rebounded enough to pick up the slack currently left by the high unemployment rate.

It is worth noting that the common good, as Aquinas conceived it, was multi-dimensional. Surely he contemplated  material wealth, but also spiritual growth toward the divine good. It would be psychopathic to pursue material wealth over all other forms of human good--blindly, without judgment and without restraint. The questions is what goals ought government pursue in times of declining resources. 

Pope Benedict XVI provides some guidence in Caritas in Veritate. Noting the challenges posed by the pervasive globalized economy, he writes:

These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers' associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

Benedict call for a renewed political discourse that recognizes the limitations of what he calls the binary of market and state.  In an important passage, he writes:

When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.

An economy of "Gift" is the proper goal, for in this economy the full range of human goods can be found. he counsels that Truth and Love are guide to the goods that ought to be sought in our economic decisionmaking:

Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted. That which is prior to us and constitutes us — subsistent Love and Truth — shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.


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I agree that discussion of the common good should be brought back into the debate. Certainly we have in some respects a false dialectic regarding big v. small government (i.e., government should take care of and regulate everything v. burn the whole thing down).

However, I find this quote a little too cute:

"This principle...would remind us that the time to cut programs and spending is not during an economic downturn, but rather once the economy has rebounded enough to pick up the slack currently left by the high unemployment rate."

Maybe, but is this just a foregone conclusion concerning the common good? Fiscal responsibility, the courage to make difficult choices concerning entitlement programs etc... also ought to be factors in working for the common good.

I question whether this is just another example of someone, instead of being informed by what "common good" means, merely superimposing his own preconceived notions of reality upon the term.

Posted by: Don Altobello | Oct 2, 2011 9:43:04 AM

This called to mind (for me at least) a wonderful book from several decades ago that is only a bit dated and certainly still worth reading: Marcus Raskin's The Common Good: Its Politics, Policies, and Philosophy (1986).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 3, 2011 7:16:10 PM